I went to Kansas City to see some theater last week. I know, you’re confused. I live in New York City, home of the Broadway, and the off-Broadway, and the off-off-Broadway. Surely I have plenty of options for seeing theater nearby, right?
Trust me, you’re not alone. In fact, I’m fairly certain I actually made one Kansas City native’s day when I told her I’d come to town see a show at the Kansas City Repertory Theater. Yes, all the way from New York. Where, no, I could not see this show, or this cast, or this creative team. She was floored. And thrilled.
If you’ve ever been to Kansas City, you’ll understand her shock. The area near-ish the theater where our hotel was located—Country Club Plaza—was quite lovely. And there were some tall buildings, and some art museums. I hear the BBQ is famous. But it’s not exactly Manhattan on scale of one to Tourist Attracting Cities of the World. Or the country. It’s a pretty quiet place.
For this trip I had only two items on my To-Do list. The first was Pippin at KC Rep. The second? Shuttlecocks. Ginormous shuttlecock sculptures, strewn across the lawn of the Nelson Atkins Art Museum as though a Giant’s game of badminton had recently been abandoned. And I’ll be honest, I mostly just wanted to see those because I thought it was funny to say ‘shuttlecocks’ over and over. I am a fourteen-year-old boy on the inside.
The shuttlecocks did not disappoint. They were huge and funny and only the fear of getting shot down by an art-protecting sharp shooter in a helicopter—or, more likely, setting off some embarrassing alarm—kept me from trying to take some sort of lewd picture with one.
And then there was Pippin.
Helmed by KC Rep’s Artistic Director Eric Rosen, and starring Broadway’s Claybourne Elder, Pippin was my real priority. The thing that inspired me to book that flight to Kansas City. And it was worth every minute of travel, every delay and transfer and not-quite-soft-enough hotel bed. Because Claybourne Elder isn’t just a beautiful Pippin—though damn is he beautiful on that stage, yo, especially when he’s shirtless—he’s a dream-cast ideal, painfully perfect Pippin. Even sick (which he was that night), when Elder lets go and belts out the big notes in “Corner of the Sky” or opens his voice during “With You” and that perfect vibrato soars out, he sounds stupid wonderful. As an actor, Elder’s ability to project true vulnerability shines, giving real emotional heft to Prince Pippin’s searching journey toward a meaningful adult life.
Hours after Pippin ended my friend and I sat in our hotel beds, awake, talking about the show. We should have been sleeping. Our ride to the airport was picking us up at 4 am—a 6 am flight would carry us to Chicago for even more theater—and we knew it. But at 12:30 am, we just couldn’t stop thinking and talking. First about the beautiful stage-pictures director Eric Rosen created throughout the show—especially in the war scene—often enhanced by his smart, stunning use of art and frames. Then about Mary Testa blowing the roof off the theater and jolting life into the old people around us with her performance of “No Time At All.” And the sneering menace of Wallace Smith’s Leading Player and John Hickok’s sharp, darkly funny King Charles and Claybourne, Claybourne, Claybourne.
Sure. There were ideas we debated, too. The production’s punk rock concept seemed only partially executed—for punk, the volume should be cranked up much, much higher, and honestly, the music would need a more complete re-orchestration in order to fully bear the concept out. But taken as a visual aesthetic, punk rock worked for the show. Plus it’s especially interesting when you consider punk’s roots as a movement reacting to the very popular culture that produced Pippin in the first place, so we weren’t really mad about it. The actors playing instruments concept seemed a bit under-baked as well—it probably would have been stronger if the punk concept had been more fully realized—but ultimately it wasn’t a bother, either. In fact, in places, it was beautiful. And there was potential to make more of it, should the work see further development.
I didn’t sleep much that night. Three hours is a generous estimate. But that’s the price you pay every once in a while for loving theater and art—the nights where you can’t silence the engine of your brain as it chugs through what it loved and hated, what worked and what didn’t, what you want to see or hear or feel again and again and again. Like the shuttlecocks. And Claybourne Elder, playing the violin and singing “With You.”
Credit: Claybourne Elder